First published in the International Herald Tribune on August 21, 2008.
Like the heroes in Leo Tolstoy's short story, Russia and America have become "Prisoners in the Caucasus," their options constrained by the irreconcilable positions of protagonists whose hostilities dates back centuries.
But while Russians have more than two centuries of historical, political, cultural and military experience to guide them in this crisis, the Bush administration is a novice to the region.
It shows. The administration's main argument for supporting Georgian sovereignty seems to be that Georgia has a rare combination of two virtues: 1) a staunchly pro-American strongman, Mikheil Saakashvili, whose lapses into martial law and seizure of opposition television stations are quickly forgiven; and 2) the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, which connects the Caspian oilfields to the Black Sea.
Over the past four years, this combination has led to an investment of American prestige and money in Georgia that is wildly out of proportion to any possible benefit for the United States.
One reason is that neither the BTC, nor its much heralded natural-gas partner, Nabucco, can ever hope to make a serious dent in Europe's thirst for energy. That is why, well before the current crisis, major investors and governments in the region have been quietly switching their support from Nabucco to Russia's own pipeline expansion project - Southstream. These economic realities have not changed.
Another dangerous sign is the exaggerated rhetoric of American officials, which reveals a clear lack of understanding that the current crisis, far from being unique, is only the latest in a very long series of ethnic confrontations in the Caucasus.
Coupled with the ignorance of the Western mass media about the Caucasus and the political ambitions of Senator John McCain, for whom Russia-bashing is a convenient way to establish his foreign policy credentials, it is not surprising that the narrative that has emerged is "Russia invades Georgia."
The danger of this simplistic and misleading narrative is that it prevents Americans from recognizing the danger that accompanies an open-ended U.S. commitment to Georgia - namely the extent to which American foreign policy is held hostage to the ambitions of actors in the region, thus transforming America, along with Russia, into a prisoner of the Caucasus.
While U.S. and Russian leaders may not see it, they are in a similar bind. The only way out is for them to work together on a comprehensive settlement for the region. Failure to do so may or may not lead to direct confrontation with Russia, but will surely lead to America getting entangled in the passions of the Caucasus, like the Ottoman, Persian and Russian empires before it.
However, there is a way to stabilize the situation, promote self-determination and democracy, and restore the tattered credibility of the West in the region. It rests on an international peacekeeping mission with a very carefully crafted mandate.
Critical to the success of such a mission would be an explicit commitment by the West that would lead to the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia if the parties fail to reach a mutually acceptable accord, as in the case of Kosovo. Under these conditions both South Ossetia and Abkhazia would probably accept Western peacekeepers.
With the backing of the South Ossetian and Abkahz leadership secured, Russia would have little choice but to support the deployment of international peacekeepers. Over time it is possible that Russia would come to regard them as preferable to being the sole military and economic guarantor of peace in the region, a role it has been forced to play for the past 15 years.
The one, unavoidable, downside to this proposal is that it would be termed a betrayal by Saakashvili, whose popularity rests on his pledge to establish sovereignty over all of Georgia. He is supported in this ambition by many in the Georgian political elite who remain wedded to the idea of an imperial Georgia, from the Black Sea to the Caspian.
But giving up South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which have both demonstrated an unbending desire for independence from Georgia and have sacrificed thousands of lives to this since 1991, may be the only way to safeguard the territorial integrity of the rest of Georgia.
It is simply inconceivable that after the latest Georgian blitzkrieg, either of these two regions will allow Georgia to rule over them, though some form of confederation may still be remotely possible. And Georgia remains a cauldron of diverse nationalities, with the separatists in Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia being only the most obvious. Svanetia, Javakhetia and Mingrelia also have restless local and political elites. Sometimes, as in the case of Adjaria, they can be bought off, but in the Caucasus such arrangements are highly personal, not institutional.
Ultimately, the only way to ensure Georgia's political stability and integrity is for the U.S., Russia and the European Union to coordinate their actions, as they did in arranging the peaceful departure from office of former president Eduard Shevardnadze.
The imposition of "Kosovo terms" on all the parties in the conflict would put the Georgian political elite before a clear deadline to come up with terms that are acceptable to other ethnic constituencies, or to give up what Shevardnadze once referred to as their "mini-empire."
Since international peacekeepers will only be accepted by the Abkhaz and South Ossetians if approved by Russia, whom they see as their only true friend in the international community, such coordination would have the added benefit of establishing a dialogue on practical areas where the United States, Russia and the EU share a common objective.
Coming to terms with a non-imperial identity will be a painful process for Georgia. But, as for Russia and Serbia, it will ultimately lead to a more stable domestic political consensus.